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June 09, 2017

For Kate Shindle, it’ll be fun to come home for ‘Fun Home’

Former Miss America from South Jersey takes lead role in tour of Tony-winning musical

As a veteran musical theater performer whose Broadway credits include “Legally Blonde” and “Cabaret”—and as the current president of Actors Equity, the union that represents theatrical performers--Kate Shindle probably didn’t need the current touring production of the Tony Award-winning musical, “Fun Home,” to get a regular paycheck. Nonetheless, the 1994 graduate of Bishop Eustace High School in Pennsauken, N.J. is traversing North America as the star of the production that, on Tuesday, opens a six-day run at the Forrest Theatre.

So, why did Shindle, who, as Miss Illinois (she was a student at Northwestern University), was crowned Miss America 1998 (fun fact: she was the first winner to compete in a two-piece swimsuit), take the role in the show based on Alison Bechdel’s acclaimed 2006 graphic memoir about her family and the role homosexuality played in its dynamics.

“There are a lot of factors,” she said during a recent phone call from Kansas City. 

“When I first saw the show, I was incredibly struck by both the quality of the writing and by the story being told. ‘Fun Home’ is about a lot of things, primarily a family that looks perfect on the outside, but on the inside, there are a lot of things they probably should be talking about.

To me, this is a show for people who love musical theater and anybody…who wants to see what the future of theater looks like should come see this show.”

“I think Jeanine Tesori [who wrote the music] and Lisa Kron [lyrics and book] did a really amazing job translating a piece of source material that, in some circles, is fairly legendary into a legitimate stage production. They didn’t just take the story and plunk it onstage because people were familiar with it.

“To me, this is a show for people who love musical theater and anybody…who wants to see what the future of theater looks like should come see this show.”

To that point, she offered that “Fun Home,” which won five 2015 Tonys (out of 12 nominations) including Best Musical, is “a unique musical. In a lot of ways, it feels more like a play than a musical. I catch myself referring to it as a play quite a lot when I talk to people about it.

“It also has a different sound than many of the shows people would consider to be traditional musicals. It’s got more of a singer-songwriter vibe and there are a couple of songs that sound like what [Bechdel] would have been listening to as a child in the ‘70s. There’s a song that sounds like a Jackson 5 song, for example. There’s one that sounds very much like a Partridge Family song. And so, it’s not a big ‘jazz-hands’ kind of musical—I’ve done those too, and I like them—but this is its own animal.

“I have also have said plenty of times that it’s a show for people who aren’t sure they like musicals because they have a vision of a musical as just an extravaganza simply entertaining. This one is entertaining, but it has a lot more to say.

As the adult Bechdel (the author is portrayed by three actresses representing various stages of her life), Shindle is onstage the entire show—a rarity for a character in a musical. But that part of the task wasn’t daunting enough to keep her from the role.

An Ohio native who was raised in Brigantine and Moorestown, Shindle, 40, has, amazingly, never had a chance to strut her stuff in front of a hometown crowd. 

“I’ve never done a real show in Philly,” she said. “I did a developmental reading several years ago at the Arden Theatre, but other than that, I’ve…never come to town with a proper show.

“It’s definitely special for me to come perform. I’ve been hearing from people I haven’t heard from in years who are coming to see the show. That’s pretty cool.”

Shindle is the youngest person to ever be elected president of Actors Equity. Her involvement with the union started when she was in a show and had an issue with the producers. She was subsequently asked to join an oversight committee. Once she assumed that role, she found she enjoyed it. That led her to run for a spot on the group’s governing board. She then was elected Eastern regional president. After a hiatus from union activity to concentrate on producing (she was part of the team that brought the musical version of “A Christmas Story” to Broadway. From that, she said, “I mostly learned that producing was not my lane”), she decided to run for president “because it sounded interesting to me and I thought I might be good at it.”

Because of her union position, she was recently asked by the Washington Post if politics might be in her future. During this interview, Shindle didn’t rule out the possibility, but made it clear it’s not on any current “to-do” list.

“I haven’t really made a plan,” she said. 

“I tend to think big, but beyond that, I have no idea. It’s not in the five-year plan; it may be in the 20-year plan.

“I’ve lived in New York since 1999…at the same time, I’m such a Jersey girl that I feel like I could really advocate for Jersey in some way. I love it, and the stereotypes about New Jersey drive me crazy.

“Plus,” she added with a laugh, “if I ran for office in New Jersey, I could go to Wawa all the time. And I wouldn’t have to pump my own gas.”

"Fun Home" debuts at the Forrest Theatre, 1114 Walnut St.; 7:30 p.m. June 13-15, 8 p.m. June 16, 2 and 8 p.m. June 17, 1 and 6:30 p.m. June 18; $132-$67; 215-893-1999,